NorthLink Ferries are leading the way to a more inclusive transport industry by providing online accessibility tools to enable a smooth travel experience. We caught up with Magnus Dixon, the Marketing Manager at NorthLink Ferries to discuss all things accessibility, and D & I. Magnus told us about the impact of COVID on accessibility within the travel industry and the response from passengers since the implementation of Recite Me on the NorthLink Ferries website.
1. Please tell us a little about yourself and NorthLink Ferries.
I’m the Marketing Manager for NorthLink Ferries.
We run the ferry service from the Scottish Mainland to the Shetland and Orkney Islands, and these are exciting journeys to the most northerly parts of the UK.
Our Pentland Firth sailing, from the northern coast of the UK Mainland to the Orkney Islands, only takes an hour and a half, but it passes the Old Man of Hoy, a spectacular sea stack. Orkney is quite beautiful. It is low and green with farmland, bits of moorland, and big fishing lochs, fringed by beautiful quiet beaches. It is notable for having amazing archaeological sites, including standing stones and a prehistoric village with houses that are 5,000 years old.
The NorthLink ferry voyage from Aberdeen is also exciting for passengers. It sails over 200 miles from the Granite City and, on the indirect sailing, stops briefly in Orkney before continuing to Shetland. This is the longest internal ferry route in the UK. The ship departs at teatime, and passengers can book their own cabins, and wake up the next morning in Shetland’s capital, Lerwick. The Shetland Islands are a bit wilder than Orkney, and the rugged scenery is breathtaking. Shetland has a unique Viking heritage, lovely beaches, historic sites, Fair Isle knitting, and of course puffins and Shetland Ponies!
I grew up in Orkney, and love writing about both the Orkney and Shetland Islands for the NorthLink website. I live 5 minutes from the port of Stromness with my peedie (Orcadian for small) family; my wife Vicky and two teenage children Milly and Robbie. My brother David was born six years before me with cerebral palsy, so I’d like to think I’ve been aware of accessibility issues from a young age.
2. What is your accessibility mission for this year and beyond?
At NorthLink Ferries, we’re really proud that our ferries and terminals have been built with accessibility in mind. There is easy access to our buildings, customer lifts, level walkways, lower customer-facing desks, hearing loops, a sign language service, large-print brochures, signage in Braille, and of course Recite Me on our website, and that’s before you’ve even stepped onto the ferries.
Onboard we have accessible cabins with wider automatic doors, ceiling hoists, and wet rooms, Changing Places toilets, safety information announced by loudspeaker and in print, helpful colours, signage in Braille, lifts from the car deck to the upper decks, wheelchairs available for use, and staff that are willing to go above and beyond for our passengers.
I think my accessibility mission for the future is to find ways to inform people about this, as I hope it will take some of the anxiety out of traveling. We are also looking into better ways to let customers inform our staff about their accessibility needs at the time of booking. This is in place already, but I’m keen to improve it!
3. Why is accessibility important to North Link Ferries and how does Recite Me support this?
When you see Orkney and Shetland on the weather map, they look really remote. In truth, Shetland is closer to Bergen in Norway than it is to Edinburgh! However, with NorthLink Ferries, you just have to reach Aberdeen, and within a few hours and for a very low price, you can set foot on these unique Islands.
We’re keen to let people know how easy it is to reach Shetland and Orkney, and the amazing suite of accessibility tools provided by Recite Me makes using the NorthLink Ferries website much easier to use in order to find out more. We love all the tools that Recite Me has to offer our passengers.
4. Why do you think diversity and inclusion should be important to the travel and transport sector?
The world is an amazing place, full of superb people with so many great stories to tell. The NorthLink Ferries logo is that of a Viking, navigating his way through the seas, and reassuring customers that it is safe to travel again. We hope that our passengers will come home with their own Viking sagas of the historic sites they visited and the amazing nature they witnessed in Shetland and Orkney.
That’s the difference between a beach holiday (though those are nice too) and a voyage with NorthLink Ferries. The weather may be a bit cooler, but I think you’ll be talking about the food and drink, the culture, the unique festivals and crafts, the slower pace of life, and the glimpse back in time that you experienced in Orkney and Shetland for a lot longer! Accessibility should not be a barrier to anyone experiencing that.
5. How has COVID accelerated the need for accessibility tools in the travel industry?
At NorthLink Ferries, we have found that passengers are keen to take their own cars, and they are more likely to book cabins since 2020. That’s one of the nice things about our ferries. There’s plenty of space for everyone, and we have bars, restaurants, and a shop onboard our ships, but if you wish, you can easily and safely isolate yourself in one of our cabins.
COVID increased interest in holidaying in the UK, and Shetland and Orkney are really unique destinations. Plenty of our passengers return again and again, but we also have new customers who have never ventured so far north before. Recite Me is great as it easily allows customers with accessibility needs to find out the information they might need on our website.
At NorthLink Ferries, we recently upgraded our online booking system to make it more user-friendly than ever before. Recite Me assists customers whilst they make web bookings too – we regarded this as very important. For those who would like to talk through their journey, we also have a call centre manned by friendly islanders!
We’re aware that COVID has made many people more anxious about venturing out, which is why NorthLink now has the tagline ‘Onward, Voyager to Shetland and Orkney’. My hope is that it will reassure passengers that our islands are safe (and unique) places to visit.
6. Have you received any feedback on the Recite Me toolbar from your website users?
We have. I respond to many of the emails sent in by our customers. Amongst these, a few have told us how the screen reader and the text resizing tool have made navigating the NorthLink Ferries website very much easier. I’ve received a couple of emails from international customers who also appreciated the language tools. We also have a staff member with dyslexia who uses the ruler and screen mask tool regularly. We meet often with Disability Equality Scotland and are part of their internal steering group. They were very impressed with everything Recite Me can do.
I still remember how easy it was to set up Recite Me on the NorthLink Ferries website – it took less than 5 minutes – and the breadth of accessibility tools available after that was staggering. I really can’t recommend it enough.